Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
With Tartuffe, Molière moved further away from the simple structure derived from French farce. In this play, there is again a middle-aged man, Orgon, who can be tricked because of his obsession. Yet, although the trickster, Tartuffe, is a person outside the power structure, in this case he is a vicious hypocrite who must be stripped of his power over Orgon if poetic justice is to prevail. Therefore, there is another pair of tricksters—Orgon’s wife Elmire and his servant Dorine—who must set things right and aid the usual young lovers.
The structure of this play is also unusual in that the title character does not appear until the third act. In the first two acts, the characters voice their opinions of Tartuffe, this mysterious, seemingly pious man whom Orgon, the head of a prosperous Parisian household, has taken into his home as an honored guest. Except for Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother, the family members are unanimous in voicing their dislike of the man. Orgon’s young wife, Elmire, her stepson Damis, her stepdaughter Mariane, and her brother Cléante, the raisonneur, as well as the impertinent servant Dorine, all see Tartuffe for the hypocrite that he is.
After this preparation has been made, Orgon enters, and Molière begins to substantiate the fact that he is indeed besotted by this stranger. In a hilarious dialogue, Dorine attempts to report on the family, only to be answered over and over again by Orgon’s anxious inquiry, “And Tartuffe?” followed by a heartfelt “poor fellow.” Since Tartuffe’s activities involve gluttonous eating and a good deal of sleeping, Orgon’s concern about the man is ridiculous. The fact that Orgon’s...
(The entire section is 698 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Orgon’s home is a happy one. Orgon is married to Elmire, a woman much younger than he, who adores him. His two children by a former marriage are fond of their stepmother, and she of them. Mariane, the daughter, is engaged to be married to Valère, a very eligible young man, and Damis, the son, is in love with Valère’s sister.
Then Tartuffe comes to live in the household. Tartuffe is a penniless scoundrel whom the trusting Orgon found praying in church. Taken in by his words and his pretended religious fervor, Orgon has invited the hypocrite into his home. As a consequence, the family is soon thrown into chaos. Once established, Tartuffe proceeds to change their normal, happy mode of life to a very strict one. He sets up a rigid Puritan regimen for the family and persuades Orgon to force his daughter to break her engagement to Valère in order to marry Tartuffe. He says that she needs a pious man to lead her in a righteous life.
Valère is determined that Mariane will marry no one but himself, but unfortunately Mariane is too spineless to resist Tartuffe and her father. Confronted by her father’s orders, she remains silent or remonstrates only weakly. As a result, Tartuffe is cordially hated by almost every member of the family, including Dorine, the saucy, outspoken servant, who does everything in her power to break the hold the hypocrite has secured over her master. Dorine hates not only Tartuffe but also his valet, Laurent, for the servant imitates the master in everything. In fact, the only person other than Orgon who likes and approves of Tartuffe is Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle, who is the type of Puritan who wishes to withhold from others pleasures in which she herself would not indulge.
Madame Pernelle highly disapproves of Elmire, maintaining that in her love for clothes and amusements Orgon’s wife is setting her family a bad example that Tartuffe is trying to correct. Actually, Elmire is merely full of the joy of living, a fact that her mother-in-law is unable to perceive. Orgon himself is little better. When he is informed that Elmire has fallen ill, his sole concern is for the health of Tartuffe. Tartuffe, however, is in fine health, stout and ruddy-cheeked. For his evening meal, he consumes two partridges, half a leg of mutton, and four flasks of wine. He then retires to his warm and comfortable bed and sleeps soundly until morning.
(The entire section is 988 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Summary and Analysis: Act I
Orgon: The patriarch, who has fallen under the spell of an impostor posing as a holy man.
Madame Pernelle: Orgon’s mother, who voices dissatisfaction with the members of her son’s family.
Elmire: Orgon’s loyal wife.
Dorine: The lady’s maid, who speaks her mind and stands up for Mariane.
Damis: Orgon’s son, who is fed up with the false piousness of Tartuffe.
Mariane: Orgon’s daughter, who will be pressured into an arranged marriage.
Cléante: Elmire’s brother, who acts as the voice of reason throughout the play.
As the play opens, Madame Pernelle prepares to depart Orgon’s household with her maid, Flipote. Dissatisfied by what she has seen in her son’s residence, she berates the family members, pointing out deficiencies of one. According to Madame Pernelle, Elmire, her son’s wife, dresses too lavishly and sets a bad example for her children. The children and other members of the household do not fare much better. Dorine, the lady’s maid, has a saucy tongue and does not know her place. Mariane, the daughter, is too secretive. Cléante, Elmire’s brother, is too worldly and speaks of real life rather than religion.
At the heart of Madame Pernelle’s unhappiness is her appraisal that the family is not pious enough. In fact, they would all do well to heed the advice of the pious beggar whom Orgon has befriended and brought into the household, Tartuffe. Madame Pernelle thinks that Tartuffe is truly religious. However, Damis, her grandson, considers him a hypocrite and imposter who is faking religious sentiment. Damis’ opinion of Tartuffe is backed up by Dorine, who is never at a loss for words.
Madame Pernelle is scandalized by what the neighbors think and say about the family. Although only the maid, Dorine is the most vocal member of those accused by Madame Pernelle. She answers her arguments and points out that the gossiping neighbor, Orante, is old and bitter. Orante is too old to have a good time and, thus, is adapting a mode of piousness so that others might not have the fun that befits their age.
Madame Pernelle is horrified that the maid would not only have a strong opinion but also voice it. Much dismayed, she leaves in a huff, announcing that she will not be back anytime soon.
Cléante and Dorine commiserate with each other after Madame Pernelle has departed. According to them, Tartuffe has duped her, just as he has duped her son Orgon. Dorine gives a short monologue that details the seriousness of the problem: “But he’s quite lost his senses since he fell / Beneath Tartuffe’s infatuating spell.” In fact, not only has Orgon placed Tartuffe in his household, but he also regards this fraud above his own family. Tartuffe plays right along, stuffing his belly and making pious proclamations. He has found an easy mark. According to Dorine, Orgon is “mad.” Even Tartuffe’s lackey, Laurent, has the audacity to order around members of Orgon’s family. In short, the family is in a very uncomfortable situation. The patriarch or head-of-household is deluded and under the influence of a fraud.
Elmire returns after accompanying Madame Pernelle out. She is exasperated, having had to endure the same complaints yet again in the doorway. Elmire announces that she has just seen her husband, who is returning after a short trip. Cléante waits to greet Orgon, and Damis asks him to find out more about Mariane’s wedding: Mariane was to wed Valère, thereby making it possible for Damis to wed Valère’s sister. However, Tartuffe is against the first wedding. And, if it is off, Damis’ wedding is too.
Scene Four confirms everything that Dorine, Cléante, and Damis have already said. Upon his return, Orgon asks for news of his family. However, he is really only concerned with Tartuffe. Orgon is completely unruffled by news that his wife has been sick. Instead, he brushes aside the account and asks about Tartuffe. As Dorine continues to relate details of his wife’s illness, Orgon continues to ignore them, and, instead, keeps asking if Tartuffe is well. Dorine’s account of the terribly ill Elmire lying feverish in bed contrasts with the image of the glutton, Tartuffe, stuffing his face at the dinner table. Yet, Orgon keeps exclaiming, “Poor fellow,” as if it were Tartuffe who is suffering. Orgon is deluded.
Cléante confronts Orgon regarding his foolish behavior in the previous scene with Dorine. He cannot believe that Orgon could be so foolish and that Orgon did not realize Dorine was mocking him. Cléante accuses Orgon of being deluded: “Are you so dazed by this man’s hocus-pocus / That all the world, save him, is out of focus?”
Orgon denies that he is mad; rather, he is a man who has been aided by Tartuffe and who is now on his way to a religious revelation. Tartuffe has helped him see the...
(The entire section is 2068 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Act II
Valère: The man Mariane loves and wishes to marry.
Orgon and Mariane are alone in the living room. First, Orgon has Mariane profess her allegiance to him, her father. Then he proclaims that she should “cheerfully obey” him. However, the conversation quickly takes an inauspicious turn as far as Mariane is concerned. Her father wants her to marry Tartuffe instead of Valère, the man she loves and to whom she is betrothed. Mariane, who is rather silent by nature, is caught off guard. She is horrified and, initially, thinks that she has misunderstood. However, her father makes it clear that he intends for her to wed Tartuffe. In the patriarchal...
(The entire section is 1187 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Act III
Tartuffe: The pious fraud whom Orgon has befriended and sheltered.
Laurent: Tartuffe’s lackey.
The impetuous Damis, enraged by his father’s plan—which will ruin his chance to wed Valère’s sister—vents frustration and wants to confront the “quack,” Tartuffe. Dorine dissuades him by convincing him that his mother, Elmire, should deal with Tartuffe. Dorine has observed that Tartuffe seems very devoted to Elmire; indeed, he may have a crush on her. This could work in the family’s favor.
At last, the long-anticipated Tartuffe appears with his lackey in front of Dorine. As predicted, he...
(The entire section is 1435 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Act IV
Always the voice of reason and toleration, Cléante plays the role of the peacemaker. He discusses the recent incidents with Tartuffe. Unlike Tartuffe, Cléante has a true conception of religious piety; Cléante preaches toleration and forgiveness: “Ought not a Christian to forgive, and ought / He not stifle every vengeful thought?” Tartuffe’s objections are rather feeble; Cléante goes on to show how Tartuffe’s behavior in accepting Orgon’s estate is not Christian. Tartuffe responds with religious platitudes. He plans to use his newfound wealth for “Heaven’s glory and mankind’s benefit.” Cléante is clearly winning the argument; Tartuffe no longer wants deal with...
(The entire section is 1117 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Act V
Monsieur Loyal: A bailiff who has been sent by Tartuffe to serve the eviction notice.
The Officer: An agent of the Law sent by the king to make an arrest.
Cléante and Orgon discuss Tartuffe’s threats. Orgon admits to having given Tartuffe papers that a friend, Argus, who fled the land, entrusted with him. The papers reveal a crime. Since Orgon did not turn these papers over to the Prince, he can be considered guilty of treason for his complicity. Orgon is now afraid that Tartuffe will use these papers against him.
Cléante is horrified that Orgon could behave so foolishly and admits that Tartuffe, with both the papers...
(The entire section is 1491 words.)